08/05/95 London Guradian
There is an area of inquiry spreading through the populace which, though increasingly popular, is derided by the church, completely ignored by the state and ridiculed by large swathes of the media.
However, it is a fascinating phenomenon which says a great deal about the spiritual vacuity both of established religions and the scientific enterprise.
I am talking about that apparently most hilarious object, the flying saucer. Since the forties, the Western mind has become ever more obsessed by the idea of UFOs, of an alien race with technology far superior to ours, which may be benign or hostile, which may declare its presence through circles cut in corn fields or by tantalizing visions of lights in the sky, but which never comes quite close enough for its existence to be empirically proven.
Never has UFO fixation been so widespread. As an index of interest in Britain, the Fortean Times, a bi-monthly magazine devoted to examining phenomena which science has been unable to explain, has seen its circulation rise from 3,000 three years ago to nearly 40,000 today.
In the United States, university professors John Mack and David Jacobs have produced best-selling books on the subject of alien abduction -- people who claim to have been taken on board alien spacecraft and subjected to sometimes friendly, sometimes humiliating probings. Predictably, both Jacobs and Mack (a Pulitzer-prize winning Harvard psychiatrist) have been all but ostracized by academic colleagues.
The Internet is crammed with discussion groups such as alt.alien.visitors, where cyber-people trade gossip on government coverups, UFO sightings and theories about alien races.
Among young people, UFO culture has become hip: fashion labels such as Anarchic Adjustment and Alien Workshop are covered by flying saucer emblems, alien logos and slogans.
Before we write off all this as some kind of collective millenarian lunacy, we should pause to reflect, not on whether or not UFOs exist, for they almost certainly do not and it is a tedious question, but on the reason for this interest in staring at the sky.
At the core of this attraction to the UFO myth is a lust for some sort of spiritual dimension to our lives, which just does not seem to be on offer from the established religions. We have little interest these days in the moralistic, authoritarian style of organizations such as the churches which in fact rarely seem to discuss matters of the spirit.
""There is a flight from authoritarian dogma,"" asserts Fortean Times co- editor Bob Rickard, when asked to speculate on the popularity of the UFO. ""It has been seen to fail.""
In a sense, the UFO offers a satisfying blend of techno-futurism, religion and a spiritual quest which is personally motivated and does not require a commitment to an externally imposed set of social rules. In a reason-based society, it is almost easier to believe in aliens, poised to descend and save the earth at any moment, than it is to believe in God.
The UFO myth is also satisfying for those who distrust governments and authorities: talk among ufologists is inevitably peppered with references to coverups, to notions of us and them. The alien is co-opted as an ally against hostile leaders.
Jung was one of the first to make the connection between the UFO and the spirit. He posited the idea that the circular symbol in the sky went back into medieval times, when it was seen as the eye of God, but also as an image of our soul.
The thinker and writer Terence Mackenna sees the UFO as ""the ultimate visible condensation of the soul, as a kind of dimension-roving lens shaped vehicle."" He even goes so far as to compare UFO obsession with the appearance of Christ. ""The leaders of Roman society may have been caught off guard by the appearance of Christ, but they had no one to blame but themselves since millions of people in the ancient world were expectantly awaiting some kind of messiah. So today, science and government poo-poo the idea of world contact with the UFOs, while the contact cults grow ever larger and more insistent that contact is about to occur.""
The UFO is but one piece of evidence that suggests young Westerners are not quite so spiritually empty as churchmen might suppose. The popularity of festivals such as the one at Glastonbury, England -- where you could easily stumble upon a group of people dancing in a stone circle as the sun rose -- is surely a clear sign.
Even hedonism and drugs experimentation -- which are certainly on the up -- could be interpreted as a sign of a searching mentality, the efforts of a restless generation to create its own religious rituals because those offered by the church are seen to be merely social and, funnily enough, perhaps further away from God than even the most unsophisticated sky-watcher.